Monday, December 9, 2013

Building a strong foundation: together we’re helping families thrive

By Paul Krieger, United Way intern

The morning Dan* walked into the Gladstone Center for Children and Families (GCCF), he had only intended to register his five-year-old son for kindergarten. While filling out the usual paperwork, the receptionist noticed Dan was getting stuck on the address box. Dan explained that he didn’t have a current address – he and his two children were temporarily staying with another family. A few more questions revealed that Dan and his family had lost their home when his wife had left him and they could no longer stay with their in-laws. While he had been consistently employed over the years and had maintained his children’s health insurance payments and car payments, he had fallen behind on an energy bill and no longer had enough money left for rent or a deposit. Like many other families in our four-county region, Dan was in danger of losing his kids and living on the street.

Fortunately GCCF had recently created a new full-time Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) position with the help of a Catalyst Fund grant from United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. The GCCF is a unique place: It houses 10 agencies in one warm, welcoming location in Gladstone. The idea is that families can easily access a range of services, with the goal of preparing all kids for kindergarten. Organizations like GCCF show how providing low-income families with resources and tools can help them succeed. The FRC position was designed to help connect parents with community resources across an array of needs, from healthcare to housing.

And the creation of this new position made a difference for Dan and his family. With the help of the FRC, Dan moved into the Annie Ross House, the only family shelter in Clackamas County (operated by Northwest Housing Alternatives, another United Way-funded partner). Later, the FRC worked with Dan to get his HUD application approved, and after a two-week stay in the shelter, he and his two children moved into a subsidized apartment. Dan also got case management, counseling for his son, and energy assistance, and enrolled his kids in Head Start. Because of the help he received, Dan and his children are able to live with a sense of security and his children are able to make the important transition into early school, a critical time for determining later academic success.

Unfortunately, too many families in our region face similar challenges to Dan and his children. Forty percent of children in the four-county region live in low-income families – a number that has prompted our focus on breaking the cycle of childhood poverty in our community. As another example, a recent one-night count found 474 people in families living on the street or in temporary homeless shelters in Multnomah County. Many more experience homelessness at some point in the year. And the number of “literally homeless” (in emergency shelters or on the streets) individuals in families increased by 18 percent. Many families that aren’t experiencing homelessness are struggling in other ways: for example, more than half of Oregon students now qualify for free or reduced school lunches and the number of Oregonians relying on public assistance is at record levels.

Nationally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2013 Kids Count Data Book shows that 32 percent of children have parents who lack secure employment and are vulnerable to even slight economic setbacks. Twenty-two percent of all children live in families below the Federal Poverty Line of $23,500 for a family of four. The overall number could be twice this, considering that the federal government uses several methods to calculate the percent, which has not changed significantly since its creation in 1964.**

Parents are the primary socializing agents for their children and parents stressed or overwhelmed by situational pressures have a harder time meeting the emotional and care giving needs of their children. This places children in a kind of “double jeopardy” where children are more at risk from the dangers of poverty and experience greater consequences from those risks. United Way funded the FRC position at Gladstone because we recognize the deep connection that exists between stable families and successful children. We cannot attempt to address breaking the cycle of childhood poverty without addressing the child’s home life, as well as the community supports that contribute to family stability. The three are inextricably linked. Poverty hampers parents’ abilities to help their children and in turn, places children at greater risk for failing at school and continuing a generational cycle of poverty.

For this reason, stable families are our second key focus area in our overall strategy of breaking the cycle of child poverty in our region. (The other focus areas are successful kids and connected communities.) Within this focus, we’ll connect families to basic resources like health care, housing and jobs. Our current funded projects like NW Housing Alternatives' Homebase and Council for the Homeless' Housing Solutions Center are helping families and individuals find the stable housing they need. Projects like IRCO's Financial Health for Newcomers, Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project – MLK Jr. Worker Center and Mercy Corps NW's Reentry Transition Center will provide financial education and help in finding work. Finally, we will be supporting increasing access to the Earned Income Tax Credit, a significant refund that many families are eligible to receive but often do not know about.

In a recent study published in The Journal of Children and Poverty, “The Economic Costs of Childhood Poverty in the United States,” it is estimated that the long-term cost of child poverty is about $500 billion or four percent of Gross Domestic Product per year when increases in crime and healthcare costs are factored in. But this study also suggests great potential for economic returns. By helping children in our region now, we are making an investment that pays off further down the road. Better outcomes for children and families, a more prosperous socio-economic base for our region and a happier and healthier community – these are all things that will more than repay our efforts now as we move forward together as a united community. Together, we can help build a stronger community and break the cycle of childhood poverty in our region.

Learn more about how we help kids and families succeed. If you’re with a local organization that supports successful kids, stable families or connected communities, you may be interested in our funding opportunities.

* Name has been changed.

** Data sites like Greater Portland Pulse use the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which calculates how much a family would need to make in order to meet its needs without public subsidies or assistance from nonprofits, friends and extended family. While the federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,550, the self-sufficiency standard for that same family living in Multnomah County would be about $65,522.

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